Growing up in North Carolina, I feel like people always asked, “Beach or mountains?” the same way they asked, “UNC or NC State?” as if that would tell them something about your character. Beach folks like it easy, I suppose: beer, flip-flops, tan lines, maybe a boat if they’re serious. Mountain people prefer quiet and wildlife, and whiskey, stereotypically. Ballcap versus straw hat; pickup versus dune buggy; hiking boots versus surfboard.
Many people don’t have the luxury of this choice. I’ve met adult Wyomingites who’ve never seen an ocean, much less crossed one. Last week all the American Indermaurs met up at the beach, flying into Wilmington or Jacksonville in North Carolina to celebrate and commemorate my Oma’s life, to share her stories and make her recipes.
As you may recall from my previous post, Oma passed away in May after a long bout of chemo, and painkillers, and not being able to eat. I struggle to portray this accurately in writing; I hate the phrase “fighting cancer,” as in, “She fought a long, hard battle against cancer.” The word “fight” is not fitting in discussing disease; no one said I “fought mono,” or that my mother was “fighting chickenpox.” Besides, cancer is not something you beat so much as you sit with. Cancer patients aren’t doing any sort of conscious fighting. The reality is more insidious and more gentle than that: feeling tired, trying to eat, feeling weakness and loss and sadness and lack of time. Feeling useless. This is not how a warrior feels in battle.
No, Oma was no warrior in that sense. She did not waste her life fighting or being angry at the dealer of her cards, but rather spent it living, and loving.
She was born in Germany in 1937 and grew up during World War II. She was just a young child during the height of rationed goods – no milk, very little sugar. The Nazis burned her schoolbook, and daily activities were interrupted by air raids. Her father died of cancer when she was very young, and her family was subsequently thrown into poverty. The German government was in disarray, and did not give my Oma’s mother any form of compensation (her father had been a World War I veteran) until many years later.
Oma met Opa (my grandfather) in a French language class in Switzerland. My Opa was supposed to move to the U.S. shortly after they met, but he postponed his trip twice, during which time they met each other’s families, who of course thought they were crazy. My Opa left on a boat for America, and Oma followed several months later, after they’d known one another for less than a year.
Upon her arrival in Manhattan, they were married at The Little Church Around the Corner. Their wedding party and guests consisted only of other people they’d met on the trip from Europe. Imagine having newly arrived in a country you’ve never visited, marrying a man from a different country whom you hardly know (no offense, Opa!), and starting life anew. It would be incredibly exhilarating, if not debilitatingly stressful!
Oma was always like this. When I was a girl, she and Opa traveled the world. They saw Nepal, Japan, Scandinavia, Patagonia, Antarctica, Costa Rica,and Kenya. And despite her adventurous nature, she was willing and able to sacrifice some of that sense in order to raise four children, my father and three uncles.
When I spoke about Oma at her memorial service, I referred mostly to her uncanny ability to see, acknowledge, and express gratitude for the beauty in every moment. Some people do this inauthentically, complementing a child on his unimaginative doodle, for example. But Oma was always forthright and honest about her convictions, particularly in what garnered her praise (e.g., she once told my coughing, sneezing sister that she had “a beautiful cold”). Oma was also an incredible giver. Her gifts were generous but, more importantly, they were little acknowledgements of the things she knew you needed, or that you loved. This winter she mailed me a package full of cold weather goodies, from scarves to hand-warmers. In high school when I was taking violin lessons, she gave me two CDs from the “Essential Violin” collection, a compilation of classical pieces featuring the solo violin performed by the best violinists of our time.
When you were with her, you were the most important person imaginable. Everything you loved, she loved. Oma was boundlessly caring.
What a marvelous way to live: always on an adventure, immeasurably generous, exceedingly humble. Oma has left me with her example of incredible living, for which I am grateful. The least I can do is attempt to memorialize the beauty that was her life.
Love to all.